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UNESCO Vote for Palestinians Stirs Debate

October 31, 2011

Lisa Bryant | Paris

A month after applying for full United Nations membership, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won a smaller victory when the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) gave Palestinians a seat despite strong objections from Israel and the United States.

While the vote boosts the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition, deep divisions are emerging over whether UNESCO's move will hurt or help the Middle East peace process.

Delegates approved Palestinian membership to UNESCO by a vote of 107 to 14. Fifty-two countries abstained, France and Russia voted in favor and Israel and the United States voted against. Arab countries helped carry the vote, following an appeal to UNESCO members by Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki said a vote for Palestine was a vote for what is right -- for justice and for the future. But the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO, David Killion, said Palestinian membership to the body will complicate American support for UNESCO.

"The only path to the Palestinian state that we all seek is through direct negotiations," he said. "There are no short cuts and we believe efforts such as the one we have witnessed today are counter-productive."

State Department officials have said Washington will not make a planned $60 million payment to UNESCO because of a longstanding U.S. law that prohibits American support for any U.N.-affiliated body that accepts Palestinian membership.

Washington currently is UNESCO's biggest funding source, supplying 22 percent of the agency's budget.

But Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi, of the London policy institute Chatham House, says the vote might energize rather than stall the Middle East peace process -- and the larger Palestinian effort to get full United Nations recognition.

"In my view, the U.N. bid … can cause a game change in the peace process, to move the process away from deadlock of the final status issues and basically move ahead," he said.

Shehadi believes the Arab Spring revolts in the region will also add to the momentum.

"My reading is that the (Arab) population wants to move on, that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been there for too long," he said.

The United Nations Security Council will take further steps on the Palestinians' membership application in November.

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